Manresa (Los Gatos, CA) – A Spring Birthday Meal

Despite dalliances with Ubuntu (Napa) and too many pizzas lately,1 Manresa is still my pick for the best restaurant in the area, if not the country. The rest of America finally saw David Kinch’s star when he defeated Bobby Flay on Iron Chef recently. The preparation and thoughtfulness of his dishes came across emphatically when juxtaposed next to Flay’s – and he was just cooking cabbage! Of course, for those that know Kinch’s food, the ingredient played to one of his current obsessions – vegetables.

Parmesan churro and crispy kale

The direction of the restaurant parallels a path described by Daniel Patterson’s (Coi, SF) eloquent “Carrots are the new Caviar”.2 Over the past few years, the menu at Manresa has shifted from an international anything-goes-as-long-as-it’s-of-the-highest-quality approach to a far more local approach. The emphasis has been on re-interpretating fine dining with the ample bounty of the area, all in a bid to create a cuisine of “time and place”, as Kinch likes to say in interviews. This is what distinguishes Manresa from the Chez Panisse clones that permeate the area, and place it alongside Noma (Denmark) as part of a loose movement to advance a different approach to haute cuisine. Patterson states in his article that the fine dining trappings are “more important as cultural signifiers than as actual experiences.” The tremendous results Kinch has obtained from weaving Love Apple Farms garden’s bounty into the Manresa menu is proof that “ordinary” vegetables deserve to be showcased in a fine dining setting.

This was my birthday Manresa meal, last March. Not all of the pictures turned out. And, as in the past, the chef knew I was coming.

Seafood is what hooked me first at Manresa, thanks to both the impeccable quality and Kinch’s restrained preparations. The local bounty has limitations so Kinch sources fish from Japan, among other places. When local treats like Monterey Spot prawns or abalone are on the menu, they will often be among the best dishes. Nearly all chefs serve a crudo-type course, or two, these days but the results suffer from fish quality or heavy-handed Nobu-like recipes; at Manresa, there is often a minimalism at play where the flavors of the fish are lifted and complemented.

The Spring Tidal Pool seems to be a divisive dish among diners for its liberal use of salt. This could arguably be a case where art and concept might be sacrificed slightly to accommodate a wider range of tastes. Usually appearing around the 3/4 mark of the menu, I find that its salinity helps invigorate the taste buds for the upcoming cooked fish and/or meats. The dish also has emotional tugs for those who grew up near oceans and it provides a reflective moment before embarking on the last quarter of the journey.

Kin-medai, sashimi style, with olive oil and chives

Shellfish, a tapenade of toasted seaweed with yuzu-sea salt snow, buckwheat honey

Spot prawns, stewed onion, sorrel and corriander

A spring tidal pool

Sea bream, bone marrow and vegetable tears

The vegetables dishes are fresh, thanks to the garden, but it is the conceptual nature of the dishes that lift them into rarefied territory. Into the Vegetable Garden has quickly become an iconic dish in American fine dining, with variations at other restaurants. They all pay homage to Michel Bras’s infamous Gargouille – if you’ve never had that dish, it alone is worth the trip. Into the Vegetable Garden is a known surprise – it will appear on the tasting menu but, because of the season, its composition is unclear until it is served.

Cabbage and caviar

Into the vegetable garden…

Root vegetable risotto without rice

With each successive meal (anywhere), I grow more and more tired of that “big (meat) hit” at the end – rarely does it live up to the accomplishment of previous dishes. Manresa is not immune to my criticism here but the meat dishes are often better, in part to the superior sourcing.

On this night, to my utter disbelief, Suckling kid goat, curds, and whey was clearly the best dish of the night – astonishing. The goat, growing in popularity, was braised and there was textural magic between it and the curds and whey. The textures were similar but just slightly distinct – the stringy goat provided just slightly more bite than the stringy curds. The goat’s melting quality complemented the creaminess of the dish, with the curds providing just the right note of acidity to offset the richness.

Suckling kid goat, curds and whey

Spring lamb, slowly roasted with leeks, anchovy

The only thing left to say, after at least 15 meals, is “go” and “get the tasting menu.”

- chuck

1 – Pizza in San Francisco is pretty good, though not Pizzeria Bianco (Phoenix) good. On some days, you can have an enjoyable pie at Delfina, Beretta, Pizetta 211, Gialina, Pizzeria Picco, San Marzano (Oakland), and more. My only gripe is that all of them are too inconsistent for their lofty reputations (and, often, waits.) I have not tried Flour+Water yet but the pictures look good.

2 – The two chefs are friends and I’d speculate there is a steady exchange of thoughts and ideas between the two.

  • Felix Hirsch

    fantastic pics Chuck, what camera are you using?

  • Carolyn Jung

    Isn’t the suckling kid goat amazing? I haven’t eaten a lot of goat in my lifetime. This was so incredibly, meltingly tender that it definitely has my taste buds primed for more.

  • MyLastBite

    Haven’t been to Manresa yet. Thanks for the beautiful photos!

  • chuckeats

    Felix – it’s a fuji e900

    Carolyn – oh yes it is

  • cleanrat

    Great review once again, I would love to try the goat and vegetable dishes. You’re making me wish I lived in the US!

    It looks like a short Tokyo trip might be happening for me in August, any recommendations from your previous Japan trip? Doesn’t have to be fine-dining or flashy stuff. Solid, honest food (especially sushi and soba!)

    I would love nothing more than to go to someplace like Sushiso Masa, but unfortunately I don’t speak Japanese, or know anyone that does. Guess I’ll have to wait till I’m there and ask the concierge and hope for the best. Ryugin looks super, but probably is a touch too expensive.


  • chuckeats

    cleanrat – i would dedicate one meal to one of the top sushi places – sushiso masa, kanesaka, or sawada. mitzutani is usually mentioned as the best but it sounds too sterile (and unpleasant) for one meal. i’ve heard, since my trip, that sawada actually has the best fish. overall, sushi at every price point was markedly better than comparable places in the US.

    as for random things – eat an ice cream cone at the ice cream place in roppongi hills (you’ll know it by the fake cow, with functional utters, in front.) pure pure milk taste. Nodaiwa is *the* place to go for eel but it was closed when i was there. Ramen Menya Musashi had great ramen, once you figure out the vending machine. Obviously, go to the fish market early one morning – quite a site!

  • Jimmie

    Most of the photographs are interesting to observe. The first, Parmesan churro and crispy kale, has the appearance of a collection of turds from a variety of animals.

    What gives?

  • Steve

    Thankfully, I’ll be there in three weeks for my first visit.

  • cleanrat

    Chuck – thanks so much for your recs! Will definitely try to make it to one of the top sushi places you suggested, or at least something similar. Nodaiwa sounds really promising too. Hopefully Tsukiji doesn’t enforce another tourist ban while I’m there. It would be understandable, but unfortunate for me.

  • A Girl Has to Eat

    The goat sounds amazing. I have been wanting to try Manresa for a while and will hopefully plan a foodie trip to california at some point.

    It’s interesting that you have compared its approach to Noma. I am planning to go to Noma August or September and am looking forward to it very much.

  • Trojanman

    Chuck, you’ve been an inspiration to me and have forced me to broaden my horizons and try all sorts of things I would never let pass my lips. I was incredibly excited to try Manresa for the first time last week (with a party of 5). Perhaps it was the hype…perhaps it was all the foam…perhaps it was complete lack of hospitality on behalf of the servers & sommelier, but all 5 of us agreed the restaurant was ho-hum and none of us would return. Yes we did the tasting menu and yes we did the premium wine pairing. Can you recommend any other USA restaurants with perhaps some more approachable food and nicer service? Price and location don’t matter. We live in So Cal, but we’re more than willing to take “food vacations”.

  • Steve

    Manresa was one of the best meals in recent memory, and maybe the best I’ve ever eaten. (L’Astrance is the only other meal I’ve had that compares.) It’s tough to return to L.A. and think about what I’m missing. Providence last Sat. was inedible by comparison, save the Santa Barbara spot prawns and sea urchin. Thanks again for recommending Manresa.

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